“Do your own research” (DYOR) has become a mantra of our age. Websites and social media personalities dispense this advice on a daily basis about topics ranging from the safety and efficacy of vaccines to global warming. And it makes sense, no? Looking up the facts and making up your own mind about issues such as vaccination or global warming and other things seems to be a reasonable proposition. It also requires you to think and become involved as opposed to being apathetic or passive. Isn’t this what every concerned person and good citizen should do?
Well, let me ask you the following question: are you qualified to do your own research regarding scientific topics that require complex specialized knowledge and experience?
Training in most areas of science is a process where it often takes more than a decade to master the complexity of the science. And I am not only talking about the theoretical aspects. There is an understanding of the science, the scientific process, and its nuances that you can only gain from performing experiments and/or making observations under the guidance of experienced scientific mentors and within the context of a research group and a research project. So why do those who dispense the “do your own research” advice feel that regular folks are qualified to navigate the intricacy of the biology, chemistry, and physics behind vaccines or global warming and its effects to an extent sufficient to understand them and form valid opinions?
Let me answer this question for you.
Those who dispense the “do your own research” advice know very well that most people are not qualified to do that, and in fact, they count on it.
The real purpose of the “do your own research” advice is to undermine the experts, and get people to accept certain ideas that will make them more likely to uphold the interests of those opposed to science and/or buy their products.
The “do your own research” advice doesn’t occur in a vacuum. This advice is often dispensed within the highly biased pages of a website or chat group. It often takes the form of “I’ve read that vaccines cause this terrible thing (link supplied). I don’t know if it’s true, but do your own research”. Or, “I’ve read that climate change data is bogus (link supplied). I don’t know if it’s true, but do your own research”. This “nudge nudge wink wink” environment is not conducive to an evenhanded appraisal of the evidence that will produce a well-informed opinion. Rather it is nothing more than a recipe to lure people down the rabbit hole of their biases by cherry-picking the articles they read and the researchers they follow.
Just consider the complexity involved in “doing your own research”.
You found a scientific article that says one thing. Do you understand the science? Is the methodology sound? Are the experimental protocols acceptable? Were the correct statistical analyses performed? Do the conclusions follow from the results? Was it published in a reputable journal? Has it been retracted? Has it been cited by other scientists? Has it been criticized? Do other scientists agree? Are there other articles that say the opposite? How many? How do you find them? What is their quality? How do you decide who is right and what is sound? Can you figure this out impartially, or are you biased? And if you are biased, what steps will you take to prevent your biases from affecting your research?
Do the particular scientists that you follow make sense to you? What are their credentials? Where do they work? How many publications do they have, and what has been their impact? Are they active in their scientific fields? Do others disagree with them? Why? Are these scientists you follow considered mainstream or are they a fringe? Do these scientists claim there are “conspiracies” and rant against the “scientific establishment”? Do these scientists try to convince their scientific peers, or have they instead taken their case to “the people”?
These questions are daunting to non-scientists attempting to make sense of the scientific literature, the nuances and dynamics of scientists and their research, and the social context in which it occurs.
But here is the amazing thing.
This problem is not limited to highly complex scientific topics. In the years of the Trump presidency, through the pandemic, and leading up to the attack on the Capitol on January 6th of 2022, millions of people “did their own research” and concluded that Mr. Trump was fighting a cabal of satanic pedophiles in the government, businesses, and media who kidnaped tens of thousands of children, tortured them, and drank their blood. Here the issue was not bias against science, it was bias against common sense! The QAnon phenomenon is a prime example of what can happen when people “do their own research”.
If some individuals could manipulate ordinary people into “doing their own research” and accepting the fantastic premises of QAnon, think about how much easier it is to manipulate people into accepting distorted views about vaccines or climate change. The experts are called experts for a reason, and it is folly to try to disregard what they say.
So should we forgo examining what scientists publish and accept everything they tell us?
Of course not! Scientists can make mistakes or delude themselves, and some scientists may even be dishonest. Additionally, some people in the pseudosciences can misrepresent their discipline as valid and themselves as experts. Instead of focusing on individual scientists, look for the consensus within a scientific field. Instead of trying to go it alone, contact scientists or science popularizers who are respected within the scientific community. Ask to be referred to legitimate science websites and avoid those that rant against the scientific establishment insulting scientists and peddling innuendo, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories. If you are going to do your own research, value what the majority of experts have to say about the matter.
Image by Alejandro Escamilla from Wikipedia Commons is the public domain.